Ryan Santos, 8, watches pelicans glide over his oceanfront campsite at… (Don Bartletti, Los Angeles…)
On a towering cliff overlooking the sun-sparkled shores of Carlsbad, Calif., Dawn Santos watched a squadron of pelicans fly past the campsite where she and her family were staying for four days of campfires, bike rides and splashing in the surf.
"It's gorgeous," the Rancho Cucamonga mother of three marveled as the afternoon sky turned bright pink.
Here at South Carlsbad State Beach in San Diego County, the Santos family took a break from work and school by renting a 26-foot trailer to enjoy one of California's most valuable economic assets — its outdoor riches.
The state's beaches, mountains and deserts offer more than just aesthetic beauty. They represent a vital economic engine that employs thousands of public workers, creates millions of private-sector jobs and generates billions of tax dollars. And now those outdoor resources may help pull the state out of a financial bind.
"California has had a reputation of having some of the most incredible parks and beaches," said John Severini, president of the California Travel Industry Assn., a trade group. "It's one of the very elements that attract a lot of people to our state."
California's vast outdoor assets are at the center of its $95-billion tourism industry, the state's fifth-largest job creator. Those resources produce more than just hotel receipts and restaurant tabs. They generate revenue from surfing schools, sporting goods stores, ski resorts, whale watching tours, white-water rafting outfitters and golf courses.
California's economy is rooted in aerospace, entertainment, technology, construction and international trade. But it thrives on bright sunshine, big waves, fresh powder and biting trout.
"Outdoor recreation opportunities are one part of the attraction of living and working in California, so they support a positive climate for investment and talent," said Stephen Levy, director of the Center for Continuing Study of the California Economy.
Nearly 40% of all domestic visitors to the state last year took part in at least one type of outdoor activity, according to statistics released this month by the California Travel and Tourism Commission. That adds up to 75.6 million visits to the state and $44 billion in direct spending in 2010, according to the commission.
The importance of the outdoor economy has been especially apparent as the state looks to emerge from the economic downturn.
With the state budget crisis worsening and unemployment topping 12%, California officials hope to seize on its balmy climate, 840 miles of coastline and more than 9 million acres of state and national parks to generate more revenue for the state and create jobs.
"If there is a silver lining to a poor economy, it is that more people are spending more time in the outdoors," said Rob Southwick, president of Southwick Associates and author of an economic analysis of the state's outdoor activities.
There may be no better spot to witness the outdoor economy at work than in California's state parks, where snack bars, campgrounds, hotels, bicycle stands and other enterprises cater to outdoor-loving vacationers and generate fees for government coffers.
The state collected more than $88 million from 54 such concession operators in the fiscal year that ended in June 2010, an increase of about $450,000 over the previous year, according to a state report. Concession operators pay the state as much as 15% of their gross revenue to operate at state parks and beaches.
The state takes a share, for example, from concession operators who give horseback tours to visitors at Andrew Molera State Park near Big Sur. It also collects fees from an overnight surf camp operated at Manresa State Beach south of Santa Cruz and gets a cut of the gross receipts from an operation that teaches hang gliding at Mt. Tamalpais State Park, north of San Francisco.
Even umbrella rentals at the beach at San Buenaventura State Beach in Ventura County generate money for the state.
"Part of the state's ingenuity is to make use of these resources," said Elizabeth Goldstein, president of the nonprofit California State Parks Foundation. "Clearly this is driven by financial necessity, and I don't see it changing any time soon."
On Friday, Gov. Jerry Brown announced that budget woes might force the state to close 70 of its 278 parks, but state park officials said they would try to keep open those parks that generate the most revenue through entrance fees and concession operations.
The national parks in California also help boost the state economy.
For example, Yosemite National Park drew 3.7 million visitors in 2009, generating $352 million in spending at hotels, restaurants, souvenir shops, sporting goods retailers and gas stations within 60 miles of the park, according to a study released this year by the National Park Service.